Today, we begin the story of America's thirty-seventh president, Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon was sworn-in as president in January nineteen sixty-nine. It was a difficult time in the United States. American forces, allied with the army of South Vietnam, were continuing to fight against the communist forces of North Vietnam. Thousands of soldiers and civilians were dying. Yet the Americans and South Vietnamese were making little progress. Critics of the war said they were making no progress at all. At home, there were demonstrations against the war. There were demonstrations against racial injustice. Friends and families were in dispute as they took opposing positions on these issues. Fighting the war also meant there was less government money to spend on social problems.
Former President Lyndon Johnson had proposed new legislation to help poor people and minorities. In some cases, Congress approved less money than he had requested. In other cases, lawmakers did not approve any money at all. Richard Nixon seemed well prepared to deal with the difficulties of being president. He was known for his ability to fight, to lose, and to keep trying. Nixon was born in California. His family was poor. When he was about ten years old, he harvested vegetables to help earn money for his family. He earned the money he needed to go to college. Then he decided to study law. He was among the top students in his class. During World War Two, he served in the United States Navy in the Pacific battle area. When he came home, he campaigned for and won a seat in the Congress. As a member of the House of Representatives, Nixon became known throughout the nation for his part in the Alger Hiss case. Alger Hiss was a former official in the State Department. He had been accused of helping provide secret information to the Soviet Union. He denied the accusation.
Nixon demanded a congressional investigation of the case. Other members of the House thought it should be dropped. Nixon succeeded and led the investigation. Later, Hiss was tried and found guilty of lying to a grand jury. He was sentenced to prison. Some Americans disliked Richard Nixon for the way he treated people during the investigation. They felt that some of his attacks were unjust. Fear of communism was very strong at that time. They thought he was using the situation to improve his political future. The future did, in fact, bring him success. In nineteen fifty, he ran for the Senate. He competed against Helen Gahagan Douglas. He accused her of not recognizing the threat of Communism in America. Nixon won the election. In nineteen fifty-two, the Republican Party chose him as its candidate for vice president. Dwight Eisenhower was the candidate for president. Eisenhower and Nixon won a huge victory over the candidates of the Democratic Party. They won again in nineteen fifty-six.
During his eight years as vice president, Nixon visited sixty countries. He faced violent protesters during a visit to South America in nineteen fifty-eight. He was praised for acting bravely under dangerous conditions. A year later, he visited the Soviet Union. He and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had a famous debate about world peace. Nixon became very angry. At one point, he said to Khrushchev: "You do not know everything."In nineteen sixty, Nixon accepted the Republican Party's nomination for president. He had many years of political experience and had gained recognition as vice president. Many people thought he would win the national election easily. But he lost to the young John Kennedy. It was the closest presidential election in American history since eighteen eighty-four. After losing to Kennedy, Nixon moved back to California. He worked as a lawyer. In nineteen sixty-two, he ran for governor, and lost. It seemed that Nixon's political life was over. He moved again, this time to New York City. He worked as a lawyer. But he made it clear that he would like to return to public life some day.
Many Republicans began to see Richard Nixon as the statesman they wanted in the White House. By then, President Johnson had decided not to run for re-election. His Democratic Party was divided. The Republicans believed they had a good chance to win the election of nineteen sixty-eight. Nixon campaigned hard against the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphrey. Humphrey was vice president under President Johnson. Throughout the campaign, he had to defend the policies of the Johnson administration. The policies on Vietnam had become very unpopular. Some Americans felt the war should be expanded. Many others demanded an immediate withdrawal. Both Humphrey and Nixon promised to work for peace in Vietnam. On election day, voters chose Nixon. He won by a small number of popular votes. But he won many more electoral votes than Humphrey.
On the day after his victory, he spoke to a gathering of supporters."I saw many signs in this campaign. Some of them were not friendly. Some were very friendly. But the one that touched me the most was -- a teenager held up the sign 'bring us together.' And that will be the great objective of this administration, at the outset, to bring the American people together."Once in office, President Nixon proposed legislation to deal with problems at home. He called his proposals the "New Federalism." One proposal was for revenue sharing. Under this plan, the federal government would share tax money with state and local governments. For three years, Congress blocked its passage. In nineteen seventy-two, the revenue sharing plan was finally approved. Lawmakers also approved legislation for some of President Nixon's other ideas. One changed the way American men were called into military service.
The new law said young men would now be called to serve by chance, with a lottery. This was a big change. Many people had criticized the earlier system. They said it had taken too many poor men and too many men from minority groups. These were the men who were fighting, and dying, in Vietnam. Congress also approved a change to the Constitution. The amendment would permit younger people to vote. It decreased the voting age from twenty-one years to eighteen years. Supporters of the amendment said that if citizens were old enough to fight and die in the nation's wars, they were old enough to vote in the nation's elections, too. The amendment became law when three-fourths of the states approved it in nineteen seventy-one. One of President Nixon's most important proposals was to build a system to defend against enemy missiles.
He said the system was needed to protect American missile bases. The issue caused much debate. Critics said it would add to the arms race with the Soviet Union. Congress approved the plan in August nineteen sixty-nine. Nixon's first appointments to the nation's highest court also caused much debate. He named two conservative judges from the southern United States to serve on the Supreme Court. Congress rejected the nomination of the first one, Clement Haynsworth. Lawmakers said his court decisions had been unfair to black Americans. Congress also rejected the nomination of the second one, G. Harold Carswell. Lawmakers said he was not prepared for the job. President Nixon faced these disappointments, and others. Yet he still had moments of great celebration during his first term. One came on July twentieth, nineteen sixty-nine. On that day, he and millions of people around the world watched as two American astronauts became the first humans to land on the moon. We will continue the story of Richard Nixon next week.